Next Generation Data Centers and the Xeon E5

Last week saw the official release of the Intel Xeon processor E5 family. Adoption among OEMs is already strong with over 400 design wins registered.  This is twice the number for the Intel® Xeon® processor 5500 series (Nehalem) when it was released in 2009. This interest signals a rapid take up for what is effectively a ground-breaking processer that’s packed full of features and is destined to lay the foundation for next-generation data centres. Below I explore some of the innovations which make this a true landmark for data centres and the cloud, while in my blog over on, I examine the broader industry story.

Xeon E5 is aimed squarely at midrange servers with two sockets used in cloud and high-performance computing (HPC) environments.  Automotive giant and long-standing Intel customer BMW tested it over 18 months ago. The company was particularly interested in support for the SIMD Intel Advanced Vector Extensions (Intel AVX) instruction set and its potential for significantly enhancing floating point-intensive calculations in multimedia, scientific and financial applications.

Following extensive tests BMW was so impressed it’s now planning to use the platform to build three new high-performance (HPC) clusters to add to its existing supercomputing muscle.  And it’s not alone. The PRACE Research Institute, which is responsible for developing HPC capacity across Europe, has developed a two petaflop cluster – the CURIE supercomputer – using Xeon E5.

CURIE has 92,000 processor cores and 80,000 are Xeon E5 processors. This has effectively doubled European HPC capacity, and according to PRACE, will help Europe lead the world “in the quest for suitable solutions to societal challenges such as population ageing, climate change and energy efficiency.”

If CURIE was to be ranked in the world’s Top 500 supercomputers it would be in the top five. That’s an impressive stat for the Xeon E5. However, in my view it’s in the area of cloud computing that the Xeon E5 will make its mark. Cloud computing is rapidly gaining currency across the entire computing sphere and consequently it’s set to become increasingly widespread.  But this growth requires next-generation data centres that have higher levels of energy efficiency, lower power consumption and greater performance than those of today.

This is where the Xeon E5 will really earn its stripes. I’m sure you’re already aware of it, but if you’re not, benchmark testing revealed that when compared to the Intel Xeon processor 5600 series the Xeon E5 can offer upto  an 80 per cent performance improvement. This is quite a performance leap.

Looking a little closer at some of the new features of the Xeon E5, it’s worth noting that the PCI-Express bus is integrated into the processor – supporting full integration of the PCI Express 3.0 specification.  As a result, the Xeon E5 can potentially double the interconnect bandwidth over the PCI Express 2.0 specification. In practical terms this means lower power consumption and higher server density implementations.

New fabric controllers also take advantage of the PCI Express 3.0 specification to allow more efficient scaling of performance and data transfer, again an important requirement for next-generation data centres.

New data direct I/O technology also increases I/O performance by up to 2.3 times of the Intel Xeon processor 5600 series, reduces latency and can allow system memory to remain in a low power state wilst data transfers take place directly to CPU cache memory. Intel AVX dramatically reduces compute time on large complex data sets and Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2.0 provides performance when it’s needed.

Taken together with embedded security features such as Intel Trusted Execution Technology and Intel AES New instructions, the Xeon E5 platform is probably one of the most phenomenal chips delivered by Intel and is clearly set to become the foundation for next-generation data centres and cloud computing.